Brian Maranan Pineda
Dee Johnson had always been the healthy type - athletic, energetic, never sick. But at age 38, her legs started to hurt something awful. Over-the-counter pain relievers didn't help, and while walking and stretching eased the pain, staying still was agony. "It was the weirdest feeling," says Johnson, an executive assistant at a construction company in Amissville, VA. "The longer I sat, the worse it hurt, clear down to the bottom of my feet." At night, in bed, the pain only intensified. She couldn't resist the urge to move her legs and, needless to say, she couldn't get much sleep. "I was a walking zombie," Johnson says.
The pain had been going on for months when Johnson happened to catch a TV commercial for the drug Requip, in which a narrator talks about "uncontrollable leg movements." That sounded just like what she'd been experiencing, so she went to see her general practitioner and told her about the ad. Her doctor wasn't sure what the problem was, but she had some samples of Requip, and she passed them along. The drug made Johnson feel nauseous, but it also helped ease her symptoms, so her doctor sent her to a specialist, who ran tests to confirm the diagnosis. Johnson had restless legs syndrome (RLS), a rare condition that causes pain in the legs and an irrepressible desire to move them.
Johnson's dialogue with her doctor is an increasingly common scenario, but it would've been almost unthinkable just 20 years ago, when doctors called all the shots, and patients knew little about their own medical care. As patients, we want to feel that we're in the driver's seat when it comes to our treatment. But on the heels of headlines about drug recalls, in tandem with spiraling health-care costs, we, as consumers, also have a vague sense of unease that it's the pharmaceutical companies that are in charge - not us. At the heart of this unease are questions about drug ads and how they're regulated: What information are we getting, and why?
One thing's for sure - there's a lot more pharmaceutical advertising than there used to be: Currently the average American sees about 30 hours of drug commercials a year. Pharmaceutical advertising is one of the fastest-growing sectors in advertising (and makes up a large portion of the ads in REDBOOK); a massive $4.2 billion was spent on direct-to-consumer drug advertising in 2006 (compare that, however, with the $55 billion that drug companies spent on research and development). That $4.2 billion represents a fourfold increase since 1997, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which oversees ads for food products and prescription medications, clarified and relaxed regulations on how and where drug companies can advertise to consumers.